Forces of Nature

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Bronwen Hughes

Written by Marc Lawrence

With Sandra Bullock, Ben Affleck, Maura Tierney, Steve Zahn, and Blythe Danner.

By Gina Fattore

Forces of Nature, starring Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock, was the highest-grossing movie in the country the weekend it opened. Thousands of moviegoers–I’m guessing a huge proportion of them female–wasted two of their precious leisure hours sitting through this ill-conceived attempt at romantic comedy. My heart goes out to each and every one of them. Petite, nonsmoking SWFs on first dates with emotionally stable, financially secure DWMs. Young marrieds who decided to splurge on a Saturday-night baby-sitter. Dateless working girls going out en masse to celebrate the end of yet another week spent answering other people’s phones. They all paid good money for what promised to be an ebullient road comedy-cum-love story in the spirit of Frank Capra’s groundbreaking 1934 screwball comedy, It Happened One Night. What they got was a slap in the face: a movie that obviously aspires to screwball status while trampling on the irrepressible female freedom that defines the genre.

If Forces of Nature screenwriter Marc Lawrence had done the decent thing and pretended to have no idea that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert had ever got on the same bus from Jacksonville to New York, it might have been easier to forgive this wretched, woman-hating piece of cinematic sludge. But when a TV news report identifies “Jacksonville” as the center of the hurricane that’s causing the lead couple their transportational woes, the case is closed. It’s not that the people behind this movie didn’t know any better–they’ve actually seen It Happened One Night, the mother of all screwball comedies, yet somehow managed to completely miss its point.

If screwball comedy was in fact “a special kind of women’s game, nearly always favoring the heroine to win,” as critic James Harvey has written, It Happened One Night is the female sex’s first and biggest screwball victory. The film begins with Ellie Andrews, the heiress played by Colbert, taking a flying leap off the side of her father’s yacht, and it ends with her dashing joyously across the lawn of her father’s estate in a white satin wedding dress. What she’s running away from is her own lavish, utterly conventional high-society wedding. What she’s running toward is Clark Gable, a marriage filled with sex and adventure, and a world in which men and women can be equal partners in love, a world vividly described by Elizabeth Kendall in The Runaway Bride, her 1990 study of Depression-era romantic comedy.

This definition of marriage as a state of male-female equality and camaraderie, charged with sexual energy played out in witty dialogue, is the benchmark of 1930s screwball comedy. Forces of Nature, on the other hand, proves itself not merely incompatible with screwball but an active offense against it, defining marriage as a miserable, luckless state in which you don’t get to fuck anyone but your tired old slag heap of a wife.

To illustrate the point, the movie opens at a bachelor party (natch), where the revelers and the best man quickly make it clear what a drag monogamy is for the modern male. A voice-over by Ben (Affleck)–one of only two in the movie–and some offhand remarks by the others about his “loyalty” supposedly distance our hero from this less than enlightened attitude. But neither ploy really works. And after Ben’s grandfather suffers a heart attack in the midst of the festivities, the poor groom gets bombarded yet again by this definition of marriage from the old man in his hospital room. How disgusting it was to be married to your physically unattractive grandmother all those years the old guy tells his grandson. How exciting to be in close physical proximity to a sweet-smelling young stripper. For one horrifying moment, this “romantic comedy” actually seems to be asking its predominantly female audience to feel sorry for this lecherous old man who married too young, inadvertently dooming himself to a life entirely devoid of hot young pussy.

In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrously offensive movie is told completely from the point of view of Affleck’s character, a Milquetoasty writer of book-jacket copy engaged to…oh shoot, here I just saw the blasted movie and I’ve already forgotten her name. Let’s just call her the Bride, shall we? The Bride has no defining characteristics besides hailing from Savannah, Georgia. Her profession, for instance, is never mentioned, although we assume she has one because she’s played by Maura Tierney, who specializes in smart, driven, no-nonsense career gals like the one she played in Primary Colors. (Warning: This lazy refusal to assign her even the most basic of character traits is the first, but not the last, sign of the utter contempt in which Forces of Nature holds women.)

With his grandfather in the hospital, Ben is forced to stay behind in New York while the Bride takes off for Savannah, the site of the upcoming nuptials. (Apparently the grandfather is important enough to pull off this crucial separation, but not quite important enough to ever be mentioned again.) On his way to Savannah, Ben is beset by a wacky string of logistical and meteorological disasters: seagull in airplane engine, railroad-car switcheroo, no dinero for a bus ticket, hailstorm, hurricane, fire at the Western Union office–all the usual stuff that happens to people who are afraid to fly and have no credit cards. With him at every turn is Bullock’s character, the free-spirited Sarah (we know she’s free-spirited because she has a tattoo and wears too much black eyeliner). Sarah’s story is a bit more complicated and considerably less plausible than Ben’s: apparently her grimy, nefarious-looking husband has misappropriated $25,000 of her hard-earned money and used it to buy a bagel shop in Savannah. (Yes, a bagel shop–I swear I’m not making this up.) While Ben is simply trying to make it to his wedding on time, Sarah’s mission is to get to Savannah, sell the bagel shop, retrieve the $25,000 without her husband finding out, and deliver the money to her ten-year-old son by her first husband. (For some reason she hasn’t seen the boy for two years, but, rather conveniently, he also lives in Savannah–not since Gone With the Wind has a movie been so Savannah-centric.)

On the road, of course, these two “opposites” fall in “love.” Or maybe it’s just lust. It’s impossible to tell exactly what’s going on because Bullock and Affleck are easily the least convincing lovers to grace the silver screen since Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey spent the night together in Contact. Their obligatory fight-to-a-kiss scene, which Bullock is forced to play in her underwear while Affleck is fully clothed, is so unpleasant even the director, Bronwen Hughes, couldn’t stand it for long. Mercifully, almost immediately after their lips touch, she cuts away to an exchange between Ben’s best man (Steve Zahn) and the Bride’s maid of honor. (Played by Meredith Scott Lynn, this character arrives on the scene so inexplicably you almost expect her to reach into her Prada bag and pull out a memo from a studio executive outlining how her discovery of Ben’s flirtation will inevitably “raise the stakes” for Ben.)

Whenever it’s not trying to convince us that these two are in love, Forces of Nature reverts to its original antimonogamy thesis, essentially devolving into a ruthlessly bleak catalog of the horrors of the marital state. The groom’s parents bicker. The Bride’s parents are recently separated, perhaps because they disagree about Newt Gingrich–we can’t be sure. The groom, perusing a quote book to find inspiration for his wedding vows (he and the Bride are writing their own), can find only negative appraisals of the institution by wags such as Oscar Wilde. A blissfully happy, sexually fulfilled older couple sitting across the aisle from the groom on a train turns out not to be married at all: they’re simply having an affair. The nadir of these supposedly comic moments comes when a divorced stranger sitting next to the groom on a plane starts complaining about what a pain in the ass women are: after you marry them they get fat and refuse to service you sexually.

Absent the misogynistic overtones, the movie’s resounding indictment of marriage might actually be a welcome switch from the usual wedding-industry infomercials Hollywood churns out. Unfortunately, that’s not what Forces of Nature has in store. At the eleventh hour, in what some critics have characterized as a “surprise” ending–stop reading here if you don’t want to know how the movie ends–Ben goes back to the Bride! He marches in intending to call the whole thing off, he really does. But when he sees her standing on the balcony of her parents’ gigantic house in her big white dress, he falls in love with her all over again. We’re never made privy to exactly what swayed him: was it the girl, the dress (which was a bit poufy for my taste), or the house, which certainly would not have looked out of place in the pages of Architectural Digest? When he goes to tell his free-spirited, working-class playmate about his renewed love for the Bride, Sarah has already taken off–which is so much more pleasant, don’t you agree, than forcing our “hero” to show her the door?

It’s particularly galling that Forces of Nature should get any credit for defying Hollywood conventions with this ending, when clearly all the filmmakers are doing is tossing a bone to the marriage-minded female audience members they’ve been insulting for two hours. Of course the ending feels like a surprise! The entire movie has been nothing but a screed against the cruel injustices monogamy inflicts on men. Then, in its closing minutes, it cues up a Sarah McLachlan song and redefines marriage, in Affleck’s second voice-over, as a repository of countless underrated comforts and consolations. Pardon me if I’m not entirely convinced or satisfied by this “resolution.”

For the record, this same cloying voice-over also informs us that Ben does think occasionally of wacky, free-spirited Sarah, the implication being that memories of slumming with sexually adventurous working-class girls are a good thing for solidly middle-class schlubs to take on their Hawaiian honeymoons. So we needn’t waste time worrying about Sarah. In fact, in our last glimpse of her, she’s frolicking in a tree with that long-lost ten-year-old son.

This tidy relegation of Sarah to the role of happy, fulfilled mother is perhaps the movie’s biggest and saddest betrayal of the screwball genre. I’ve got nothing against mothers, mind you. Heck, I’ve got one myself. But screwball heroines cannot have children. They can have a dog (in fact, they should have a dog, played whenever possible by Asta), they can have a cat (like Eve Arden in Stage Door), they can even have a leopard (like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby). But they cannot–I repeat, cannot–have children!

In a nutshell, this is what makes Forces of Nature such an insult to the young female audience for which it’s obviously intended: there are no heroines in it, screwball or otherwise–only brides and mothers. All this revolting movie has to offer women is the stultifying choice between being some man’s wife or some boy’s mother. No diving headfirst off your father’s yacht into the Atlantic Ocean to look for yourself. No riding on Clark Gable’s back across a moonlit stream. No liberating vision of a world where, as Harvey puts it, “we are all tough and funny and smart together, and connected because we’re free instead of stuck with one another.” Clearly I am no fan of Bullock’s chest-pounding Sarah, but both she and the Bride–as well as the Bride’s mother, the groom’s mother, and all the women in the audience who paid good money to see this movie–deserve better than this appalling travesty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.